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5th June 2023

Breaking the stigma: Psychedelic startups embrace opportunity to innovate healthcare

The psychedelics sector faces scepticism due to the inclusion of substances like LSD, magic mushrooms, MDMA, ketamine, and DMT in legitimate businesses. Although breaking the stigma remains a monumental task, through diligent efforts, relatable stories, and robust scientific data and studies, the perception and opinion surrounding psychedelic treatments are gradually shifting.

European psychedelics startups have embraced digital applications, including AI-powered drug discovery platforms, biomarkers for patient tracking, therapist apps, and personalised music for treatment. These startups demonstrate adaptability, potentially expanding into the broader health and wellness markets. Despite challenges, the sector remains optimistic, emphasising the need for a long-term perspective and attracting patient capital.

Towards psychedelic investment and innovation

European psychedelics startups have already ventured into extensive digital applications. Their initiatives encompass a wide range, from April19’s AI-powered drug discovery platform and Beckley Psytech’s development of biomarkers for patient tracking to Homecoming’s therapist app and Wavepaths’ personalised music for treatment.

One notable characteristic of these startups is their adaptability, which allows for the potential expansion of their applications beyond psychedelics into the broader health and wellness markets.

With such breadth of opportunities, the sector maintains a sense of optimism. However, startups must adopt a long-term perspective and attract patient capital to navigate the evolving market landscape.

Burtenshaw observes, “I anticipate that the market landscape will be markedly different in five years compared to its current state. We expect to witness a convergence of de-stigmatisation efforts alongside the widespread adoption of psychedelic treatments.”

Nonetheless, the journey to market success appears lengthy and challenging. Regulatory barriers, a financially precarious landscape, and slow paths to profitability have somewhat tempered the initial excitement surrounding psychedelics. However, in the critical battle for acceptance and recognition, the prospects of achieving victory are steadily growing.

The road to breaking the stigma

Clara Burtenshaw, co-founder of Neo Kuma Ventures, emphasises the need for a serious and practical approach to discussing psychedelics, a necessary first step to breaking the stigma. Her background as a corporate lawyer informs her entrepreneurial mindset. Burtenshaw’s motivation stems from personal experiences with mental health struggles, leading her to consider psychedelics as a viable treatment option.

Clara Burtenshaw and her co-founders established Neo Kuma Ventures to invest in psychedelic treatments, coinciding with the global mental health crisis triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Antidepressant consumption in Europe has doubled in the past two decades, but their efficacy has been questioned, with only 15% of patients experiencing meaningful improvement. In contrast, psychedelic treatments offer a single transformative experience alongside therapy.

The global mental health market, valued at $380 billion in 2020, is projected to reach $538 billion by 2030. Europe leads in psychedelic drug development, attracting significant interest from startups such as Atai Life Sciences and Beckley Psytech.

Clara Burtenshaw aims to capitalise on this sector’s potential through patenting intellectual property.

The psychedelic healthcare industry faces challenges on the path to success but holds significant potential. Regulatory approval is crucial for acceptance, requiring compelling clinical arguments.

The evidence supporting psychedelic treatments is growing, with studies showing remarkable results. For example, controlled doses of MDMA led to complete remission in 68% of veterans with PTSD.

Psychedelic treatments also show promise for medication-resistant depression. These treatments offer faster and more transformative effects compared to traditional antidepressants. Regulatory review is underway for these treatments, which could bring them into the mainstream and revolutionise mental healthcare.

“The potential of psychedelics lies in individuals gaining a deep understanding of the root causes of their trauma, directly confronting it with the guidance of a therapist, and subsequently moving forward with their lives,” asserts Burtenshaw.

Breaking the stigma around psychedelics is as difficult as it sounds.
Psychedelics are hallucinogenic drugs that induce altered mental states and expanded consciousness. They are known for triggering psychedelic experiences or trips. This subclass of drugs is also referred to as classic hallucinogens or serotonergic psychedelics. The term psychedelic can encompass other hallucinogens, like MDMA or cannabis, but this caption focuses on the narrower definition of psychedelics.

Powerful narratives are catalysts for change

Stories tailored to specific regions, such as veterans using psychedelics in the US or terminally ill patients in the UK, have been influential in changing perceptions towards breaking the stigma. Access to psychedelic therapies in Europe is currently limited, but there are signs of progress, with UK politicians advocating for regulatory changes. Recent initiatives in the European Union also aim to promote safe and affordable psychedelic therapies.

Access to psychedelic therapies in Europe currently requires European citizens to travel abroad. However, there are signs of progress as the regional disparity is gradually decreasing. In the UK, politicians from various backgrounds are showing support for these treatments. Conservative politician Crispin Blunt has highlighted the lag in the UK’s regulation of psychedelics compared to other countries like Australia, Canada, and the United States. Blunt argues that these substances can help address the overreliance on antidepressants and advocates for reclassifying psilocybin from Schedule 1 to Schedule 2.

This reclassification would facilitate further scientific research into its potential as a medicinal option.

The plea made by Crispin Blunt finds resonance with recent initiatives within the European Union. Just last week, a cross-party group of lawmakers launched a new faction aimed at promoting affordable and safe novel therapeutic applications of psychedelics within the bloc. Czech MEP Mikuláš Peksa emphasised the urgent need for improved treatments, stating, “Millions of Europeans require better options. We must ensure that novel psychedelic treatments are being considered, as scientific evidence highlights their tremendous potential.”

This potential not only captures the attention of politicians but also opens up diverse opportunities for the tech industry. Relaxing regulations would create a variety of avenues for tech-focused enterprises, and startups are strategically positioned to capitalise on these prospects.

Like Burtenshaw, Tom McDonald, CEO of Clerkenwell Health, does not conform to the stereotypical profile of a hallucinogen enthusiast. After spending a decade in management consulting within the pharmaceutical industry, McDonald joined Clerkenwell, a British startup conducting clinical trials for psychedelic treatments.

McDonald acknowledges that his career change raised eyebrows among friends and family. He notes that while stigma still surrounds psychedelic therapies, efforts within the field are focused on normalising their usage, leveraging both compelling data and emotive stories.

Learn more the Med-Tech World Way

Discover more about the transformative potential of psychedelics in healthcare by exploring this thought-provoking article featured in the November ’22 issue of BLOCK Magazine. To further gain valuable insights into the latest developments and advancements in the exciting field of health care, mark your calendar for the upcoming Med-Tech World Summit in Malta this October. Join industry leaders, innovators, and experts as they discuss the future of MedTech.